Book Review: Intifada: The Long Day of Rage, By David Pratt. Sunday Herald Books, 2006. 304 pages.
Let me begin this article with a digression.
Europeans tend to disparage the biased coverage of Middle-Eastern affairs in the North-American print media, and feel proud of the more “balanced” coverage available on their side of the Atlantic. This evaluation is reciprocated by politically savvy North-Americans, who sometimes have an almost utopian conception of European press freedom.
I believe that these perceptions need, at the very least, to be relativised.
Just before starting this article, I read a report in a well-known newspaper headlined: Move to bring genocide case against Ahmadinejad as Iran president repeats call to wipe out Israel. The instigators of this move were identified as John Bolton, Alan Dershowitz, Dore Gold, and ‘experts from the US, Canada and Israel’. ‘The president,’ we read, ‘…told up to 70 visiting speakers that the Israeli state would soon be wiped out.’ The President’s exact words are then cited: ‘ “Thanks to people’s wishes and God’s will, the trend for the existence of the Zionist regime is downwards and this is what God has promised and what all nations want,” he said.’
The reporters, Robert Tait and Ed Pilkington, clearly believe that “the Zionist regime” and “Israel” are synonymous, a believe they share with Jewish and Christian Zionists, with neo-Cons everywhere, and with anti-Semites.
The newspaper in which this report appeared on December 13th is the UK Guardian, described by Wikipedia as “centre-left” and “often… perceived as critical of Israel”. Nonetheless, it is clear that Guardian reporters employ the same language and the same conceptual apparatus as the New York Times. It could easily be demonstrated by quotation that, in the view of Guardian reporters and the majority of its commentators - including those deemed “pro-Palestinian” -, dictatorial police states such as Egypt or Jordan are “moderate Arab regimes”, Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah are “more moderate” than Hamas, something called “the international community” unanimously backs a solution based on “two states living side by side”, and it’s reasonable to boycott the Palestinian Authority for not accepting three “principles” that Israel - which must never be boycotted - doesn’t itself accept.
Let’s direct our gaze from liberal England to mainland Europe. By and large, the German media faithfully reflect the pacifist inclinations of the majority of German people. There was wide coverage of the disgust universally felt by Germans when the Americans recently told them that “they would have to learn how to kill” in Afghanistan instead of supposedly contributing to the reconstruction of that benighted country. Nonetheless, even the most “liberal” papers and magazines read like the Jerusalem Post when it comes to Israel. Palestinian groups other than Fatah are almost invariably described as “extremists” and their leaders as “Terroristenfuehrer”. The most despicable Israeli politicians are flattered to the skies, and their most dismally cynical projects for the future of the Palestinians cited as evidence of their profound humanism. When the Frankfurter Rundschau recently broke ranks and published a manifesto in which 25 academics called for a re-evaluation of Germany’s sycophantic relationship to Israel in the mildest possible terms, it received practically no echo in other papers and was greeted with a hail of abuse in the almost entirely right-wing German blogosphere.
In France, which Israel likes to caricature as a hive of official anti-Semitism, a slew of court-cases over the last few years has targeted journalists and commentators who have dared to criticise Israel’s policies and actions; while these cases have been uniformly unsuccessful, the have sometimes failed only after a long and painful appeals process. The lesson has clearly been learned, and the situation is now little better than in Germany. For reasonable coverage of Israel/Palestine one must turn to more ideologically committed publications like the far-left weekly Rouge (organ of the Communist Revolutionary League) or the left-liberal monthly Monde diplomatique.
In Italy and Spain respectively, La Repubblica and El PaÝs display both the creditable and discreditable aspects of The Guardian: they attempt to give a “balanced” picture that doesn’t entirely exclude the Palestinian perspective, but vitiate this “balance” by the employment of a language and conceptual repertoire imposed by a “pro-Western” perspective heavily influenced by Zionism and the neo-Cons.
The point of this disquisition is to explain why I have decided to recommend to readers a book of a kind that, normally, I would put to one side: a journalist’s synoptic view of the Israel/Palestine conflict based on a summation of his experiences as a reporter in the region. The journalist on this occasion is David Pratt of the Scottish Glasgow Sunday Herald, of which he is now foreign editor.
Scotland is a region which, perhaps more than anywhere else in “the West”, is profoundly sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. The Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign, under the charismatic leadership of Mick Napier, is perhaps the world’s most energetic and fearless such organisation. The Glasgow Media Group has done sterling work in unmasking the sins of commission and omission in British media coverage of the conflict. Prominent politicians like George Galloway or novelists like James Kelman have been unstinting in their support for the Palestinians (although one should also recall the Scottish origins of people like Gordon Brown and John Reid, not to mention Tony Blair!).
The Glasgow Herald has been described by a friend of mine - a one-time contributor to the paper - as “always the most serious paper in Scotland…it always seemed less inward-looking than its east-coast rivals The Scotsman, The Dundee Courier etc, and naturally more leftward-leaning in a city massively dominated by Labour-voters…It keeps its neck stuck out in politics - e.g. commendably hard on Blair, as it was on Thatcher, and willing (like Glasgow’s Labour-run council) to stick up for the underdog, e.g. in Palestine.”
The paper has now initiated a book imprint with two titles. The War On Truth is by the Sunday Herald’s Home Affairs and Investigations Editor Neil MacKay, and “investigates all aspects of the lead up to the Iraq War, its execution, and its aftermath”, arguing that “the public was systematically fed half truths, and untruths, in a manner that questions what kind of democracy we really have.”
Intifada: The Long Day of Rage, which concerns us here, focuses on the two Palestinian Intifadas, or uprisings, placing them accurately within their historical context. In his Foreword the author tells us refreshingly that “this book makes no pretence towards impartiality… because the weight of evidence which as a reporter I have come across over considerable time, convinces me that the State of Israel has a case to answer for in its appalling treatment of the Palestinian people.”
That said, Pratt does not neglect to present the Israeli point of view, and sometimes is a little too respectful of dodgy figures like A.B. Yehoshua (who admittedly, as quoted here, once compared his compatriots to Germans who after World War II claimed they knew nothing about the concentration camps), David Grossman, and Amos Oz. It’s hard to understand how Pratt can quote approvingly Oz’s description of the conflict as “not one of good guys and bad guys, but more like a Greek tragedy” - the standard trope for relinquishing responsibility and pretending that oppression somehow arises independently of human agency.
Nonetheless, Pratt’s perspective on the relationship between the two Intifadas in surely sound, and severely critical of the PLO and Palestinian Authority. He maintains, in effect, that the surprise effect of the first Intifada ushered in a new era of complicity between the PLO and Israel, neither power being able to cope with a genuine grass-roots revolution which threatened to destroy the influence of the major Palestinian clans. He describes in minute detail the elaborate organisational structure of what was much more than a “war of the stones”, and traces the evolution of the Oslo mirage as a more effective means than Israeli brutality of dismantling this structure. Conversely, he sees the second Intifada as essentially counterproductive, while an inevitable consequence of the depoliticisation consequent on the failure of Oslo, the election of Ariel Sharon, and the Israeli-assisted rise of Islamism.
There is a profoundly unflattering portrait of Yasser Arafat, although one could do without the odious quotation from Robert Fisk concerning the “seediness” of “the Arafat mug”.
Pratt, it seems, has either been present at most of the important and horrendous events that have occurred in Israel/Palestine over the last 20 years, or just happened to be sitting in a bar around the corner. There are elements of his account that will arouse dissent - such as his belief that Sharon’s onslaught on Jenin was “not a massacre” - but by and large the wealth of detail and the clarity of exposition makes this account of a monstrous and ongoing crime against humanity one of the most informative books of its kind. His conclusion is eloquent and worthy of reflection:
“For those that continue the struggle against the Israeli occupation, the intifada is either ghost dancing or nation building, and sometimes it is both. At the very least, it has crystallised their sense of being a nation, but it is a phantom nation. Insubstantial perhaps, but incandescent yet.”
Oh, and from now on I’ll be reading the Glasgow Sunday Herald!
Raymond Deane is a founding member of the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign